Today, Tami Neilson is back with a stripped-down take on a Christmas classic. More specifically, the Canadian country crooner is ushering in the holiday season with a gorgeous cover of Willie Nelson’s “Pretty Paper,” premiering below.
“Last year, I was asked to perform a Christmas song for the SiriusXM Canada live sessions with my brother Jay,” Neilson says in a statement. “I instantly chose ‘Pretty Paper,’ a powerfully understated song of empathy and compassion penned by one of musical heroes, Willie Nelson.”
Nelson first wrote the song in 1963, but only got around to recording it in 1964, after Roy Orbison’s version had already climbed the charts. Eventually the song would resurface as the title track of Nelson’s 1979 Christmas album.
“It has always transcended the usual Christmas fare of snow, sleigh bells, and Santa Claus, instead, being a voice for the voiceless—sung from the perspective of someone who is homeless,” says Neilson.
“It has always pierced my heart,” she continues. “Growing up on the road with my family band, there were some hard challenges and we were homeless numerous times throughout my childhood, sleeping on couches or mattresses on peoples’ floors, eating from food banks. I remember that powerless feeling of loss of dignity and, while we always had a roof over our heads due to the kindness of friends, family or even strangers, I have always had deep empathy for people without a place to call their own.”
Neilson’s version of the song is melancholy yet warm, centering Neilson’s smokey, syrupy drawl. Neilson isn’t the only artist to cover the tune recently—Dolly Parton and Willie Nelson gave the song an update for Parton’s new holiday album, A Holly Dolly Christmas. The Lumineers, meanwhile, covered the song in 2018.
“This Christmas is going to be hard enough on those of us privileged enough to have a home,” says Neilson. “So many of us are struggling with loss of jobs and income, let alone those who are powerless and have to rely on the kindness of strangers to assist them through this holiday season. At a time when many of us celebrate the birth of a baby who was the personification of love, acceptance and compassion, this song embodies those reminders that we need to extend those same things to each other.”
Neilson’s “Pretty Paper” cover comes after the New Zealand-based musician’s latest album, CHICKABOOM!, which arrived back in February. More recently, American Songwriter premiered the video for “You Were Mine,” one of CHICKABOOM!’s standout tracks.
“Pretty Paper” is out November 13 via Outside Music.